Minding the Gap: Deepening Polarisation in Poland and Hungary

Once front-runners of democracy in the CEE region, Hungary and Poland have become the most prominent cases of democratic backsliding in the EU. The two countries are famous for their centuries-old friendship to which a common saying refers to: “Hungarians and Poles are two brothers; they fight together and they drink together”. While their governing parties and populist leaders are careful to strengthen their friendship, the divisive rhetoric of Fidesz-KDNP and Law and Justice (PiS) managed to excavate the gap among their own people, tearing apart friends and families and disrupting their discussions of politics.

With an agenda to gain a comprehensive understanding on the political preferences of people living in small rural communities, the Budapest-based 21 Research Center and its Polish collaborative partner, Projekt: Polska conducted a joint study. The two think-tanks aimed to grasp the high popularity of Fidesz-KDNP and PiS in their respective countries in the countryside. Following the report of this study, an online conference was held to discuss its results with invited experts from the field. This project was supported by the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom.

Findings of this study suggest that the notion of polarisation is definitive to understand political preferences and voting patterns of people in Poland and Hungary. ‘Minding the gap’ between the two sides invites us to think about it as a carefully constructed phenomenon by the governing parties, rather than a naturally occurring divide. Moreover, it bears significance for answering the success of the governing parties among rural communities that are most exposed to the official narrative streamed via the monopolized national media.

For more information and detailed results, see the full report here.


Research background - contextualizing Hungary and Poland

The success of the Fidesz-KDNP in Hungary and PiS in Poland can be studied along numerous factors, such as their control over resources, system of authoritarian clientelism or divisive populist rhetoric. The latter aims to convince people that only the governing parties can represent the will of the people, and opposition parties (mainly liberals) are the agents of the elite. Both the Hungarian and Polish population experienced significant political and social polarisation during the course of the last decade, which can be traced back to the effective populist rhetoric of the countries’ political leadership.

Political polarisation is a prevalent issue in both countries, impacting their democratic processes and its people. It solidifies rigid political group identities in which the opposition is entirely rejected. It is particularly prevalent in villages and small towns, where sources of media are limited, participation in democratic processes is low and political discourse is avoided. Thus, it is worth observing such polarisation’s connection to political preference formation and impact on people’s responsiveness to populist rhetoric.

Previous research has also demonstrated that the popularity of the right-wing governing parties is disproportionately higher in small towns and villages, which are associated with lower socio-economic status. The collaborative research of 21 Research Center and Projekt: Polska chose to focus on this aspect of political preference formation of people living in small rural communities in the two countries.

Takeaways of the study: views of people living in rural areas on local politics, economic status, political discourse and the governing parties

The focus groups for the study were designed to hear the accounts of both supporters of the governing parties and the opposition. While participants were divided into homogenous groupings based on their political preferences, the focus group interviews followed the same structure and four topics. Involvement in local politics and opinion of their communities; economic status and fears; evaluation of the governing parties and assessment of polarisation were all included.

The joint study found shared patterns among Hungary and Poland, as well as several differences that highlighted the need to refrain from broad generalizations on a regional level. One such instance was the topic of local politics. When asked about the development regarding their municipalities, citizens of both countries primarily mentioned high-class, (mostly EU financed) infrastructural investments. Interestingly, local politics in Poland seemed to be less inclined to become intertwined with the acts of political parties on a national level and as such, local matters appeared to be less politicised. Hungarian groups were more divided in this regard as they both emphasized the connection between local and national politics. Therefore opposition supporters were less eager to acknowledge their municipalities’ development under a mayor supporting Fidesz.                                 

In both countries, the sample consisted of people who had less economic capital and fewer opportunities than those who live in larger cities. Both Polish groups saw the future filled with uncertainty and fears rather than hope, but less so in connection to politics than external factors (e.g. climate change). In Hungary, the opposition group members had a similar opinion, they saw their situation worsening, but the government supporters were quite optimistic. Hungarian participants’ perception of their economic status was more closely linked to the current political regime. Still, pro-family subsidies and support packages for the elderly promoted by the governing parties were mentioned in both countries as ones that help people to improve their financial situation.

The topic of politics and politicians was surrounded by scepticism and negative associations, echoing the post-socialist context shared by the two countries. However, evaluation of the governing parties differed in Poland and Hungary. On the one hand, Hungarian government-supporters were proud of their choice and claimed to rest assured that Fidesz is the best option available. Even voters of the opposition admitted that Fidesz is strong and has some good policies. What they could not accept was the record-level corruption displayed publicly. In contrast, Polish PiS supporters reported to be more ashamed and contested with their choice. They were more disenchanted from politics in general and less blind to the faults of their party. At the same time, they felt that they were under attack in the media, which they did not understand.

The phenomenon of polarization is particularly tangible among small rural communities and an urban-rural divide was characteristic of both focus groups in Poland and Hungary. Regardless of their country, the majority of participants reported avoiding political discussions consciously. They perceived them as inherent sources of conflict even among friends and family. Notably, in Hungary, when asked about their opinion of the “other camp”, Fidesz and opposition voters similarly referred to each other as being brainwashed. 

Discussion of the main outcomes and identifying key areas to consider

In addition to the research report, an online international conference was organised by the 21 Research Center, Projekt: Polska and the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom to discuss the research findings. Besides the presentation of the results by Lívia Kosa (21 RC) and Krzysztof Maczka (Projekt: Polska), a round-table discussion was held featuring Dániel Róna, Director of 21 Research Center and Tim Haughton, political scientist, author and professor at the University of Birmingham.

You can watch the video of the conference here:

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According to Dr. Haughton, three main takeaways can be underlined from the study, which can help political actors and the liberal network to strengthen their grip on the subject. First, local politics is a crucial site of people’s involvement in democratic processes and its importance often neglected by national political campaigns and opposition parties. The fact that both Fidesz and PiS have a strong base in small rural communities is a reminder of the reasons behind their success. Secondly, that delivery politics is what matters to voters, the notion of ‘getting things done’ while ideological debates are secondary to good governance. Lastly, it seems that generalizations drawn on the basis of a shared communist past or current right-wing populist governance between the two countries are limited.  The picture is bleaker in Hungary, people reporting less inclination to participate in local decision-making while their everyday lives and future prospects are more politicised than what Polish participants mentioned.

It seems straightforward to emphasise how vital it is to understand the two governing parties’ popularity in the countryside. In order to build up a liberal opposition network there, politicians must understand the needs, fears and desires of their voters from such small rural communities. As this study suggests, they are oftentimes driven by different motives when it comes to elections than residents of more industrialised areas and greater cities, on whom national politics tend to focus on.

Moreover, the examination of the theorized effect of divisive populist messages and discovering the main mechanisms behind these is crucial to help liberals improve their communication strategy and policy making. To achieve this, the study aimed to provide an overview of the perceived problems of rural people that liberal organisations could address. Although the inquiry was made in Hungary and Poland, it is hoped to better understand the analysed phenomena in the whole region.


About the author:

Aliz Keszthelyi is a junior research analyst at 21 Research Center and currently finishing her Bachelor’s Degree in Sociology at the University of Warwick. Her research interests are social inequalities, social-, and political theories (e.g. populism, postcolonial theory) and more specifically the sociology of food and identity.

About the institute:

The 21 Research Center is an independent non-profit think-tank founded in 2020 that focuses on social research, public opinion polls, policy analysis and consultancy. The Center is dedicated to advancing the political insight, openness and democratic culture of the Hungarian society. It is fully committed to Hungary’s Euro-Atlantic orientation and the general values of a merit-based, inclusive and participatory democracy, and environmental protection. The think-tank aims to cooperate with political and economic actors that share the same set of goals. The objective is to create analyses and policy papers based on abundant hard data and in a manner of objective, scientifically proven research in order to deliver comprehensive policy recommendations.